Friday, April 24, 2015

Stop Shooting the Messengers: Racism is a Systemic Problem

It can be tough living as part of a target group.
It’s easy to ferret out individuals who say and do blatantly racist things. Take the debacle in which Oklahoma University white frat boys engaged in a racist bus ride sing-along that was caught on video. It seems some folks are so “white” – that is, part of a system that promotes the supremacy of one race over others – they truly don’t realize they’re treading on their own humanity.

              That’s right, their own humanity. Yes, they’re also stripping people of color of their humanity too. But white people who engage in racist behavior also lose. Problem is, most don’t realize it.

              They can’t fathom a system of oppression exists that is based on the color of a person’s skin. It’s unbelievable. Unbelievable because most refuse to accept how racism was firmly cemented into our social way of being through nation-founding documents. Unbelievable because it’s not happening to them.

              The U.S. is my home and I love it. But just like in families, sometimes you gotta pull back the curtain and just tell it. Except most white folks don’t want to hear it. They’re afraid. Some of them. Too much to lose. Privilege, power. Worst of all, their reality as they’ve been conditioned to see it.

              In the nation our Founding Fathers envisioned, people have to share. Not equally but equitably. However, the way our society is set up, sharing is a bad word. Which brings up another bad word, at least within the context of racism: system.

Yes it is a big deal
              Since the bus video incident there have been a string of media reports outing white students engaged in racist behavior. The most recent was a week ago down south at Duke University. According to reports, a white student there admitted to hanging a noose from a tree.

              (For those unaware, a hanging noose carries significant torment in some communities of color. It is particularly so among African Americans, who were systematically lynched by the thousands throughout the 20th Century.)

              Last month, up north at Connecticut College in New London, classes were cancelled. The controversy there was a posting of illicit images that bore heinous racist graffiti. The foreboding message stated, “No Nig*ers.”

              Around the same time in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on the campus of Bucknell University, three students spouted racist rhetoric on air. It involved a campus radio broadcast in which they spat racist comments. One used the N-word. Another proclaimed, “…black people should be dead.” The third said, “lynch ’em.”

              Like the racist bus frat incident, responses from the various universities were swift and decisive. Campus presidents suspended, expelled or otherwise disciplined offending students. To those leaders and others, that was the end of it. But such punishment should have only been the beginning, if it should even happened at all.

              Most believe punishing the racist behavior of a few ignorant students should be the focus. “Eliminate the behavior of the offensive people and the problem is solved.” If it was only that easy.

              It’s sad but true: behind the behavior of the few individuals acting out is a larger, systematic issue: prevailing attitudes. Collective biases, conscious and unconscious, preserve and promote systems of inequity. And like an iceberg on the ocean, we only see the tip of an immense but largely invisible threat that plagues our nation.

To quote Yoda, "You must unlearn what you have learned."
Sure, make the students pay for what they did, but do it in meaningful, not punitive ways. Educate them through means that hold them socially accountable. Compel them to enroll in anti-racist workshops, conceptually tough but ultimately spiritually nurturing experiences. They are places in which all truths are shared, not just the white perspective.

              If you want to dole out punishment, here’s an idea. Penalize our institutions by stripping them of racism. Education, finance, housing, courts, healthcare. Media. Churches. But do it in a systematic way, one that scrutinizes policies rather than people. One that savages inequitable practices as opposed to reprimanding individuals.

              It hurts, but people of color can handle the random racist citizen; been doing it for centuries. What’s harder taking down the institutional racism that’s tearing us all apart, one human being at a time.

 Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Culture, Bias Hinders Equal Pay for Equal Work for Women

Remember Rosie?
Equal pay for equal work. That’s a concrete value proclaimed by most employers. Yet reality is different. When it comes to gender, women make less on average than men. And it’s inhuman.

              What chaps me about this is how some folks nit-pick this human rights issue. They prefer wrangling over the degree of disparity rather than helping find ways to remedy this systemic, institutional injustice.

              Because women earn less, they must work longer for the same amount of pay as men. That’s what Equal Pay Day is about. This year it was April 14. It was started by the National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE) in 1996 with the goal of raising awareness of the gap between men's and women's wages.

NCPE selected Tuesday to represent how far into the work week women must work to earn what men did the previous week.

              According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), among full-time, year-round workers, women were paid 78 percent of what men were paid in 2013. That is, for every dollar a man earned, a woman’s wage was on average 22 cents less.

              The percentage is even worse among women of color.

              Race is but one dimension of this problem. The pay gap between women and men living in the United States can be significant, depending on other variables as well. Among them age, education and geography. The pay gap also exists among (surprise) women without children.

              According to AAUW’s “Graduating to a Pay Gap” report, among full-time workers one year after college graduation (nearly all of whom were childless) women were paid just 82 percent of what their male counterparts were paid.

              Another inconvenient truth: women face this gender pay gap regardless of profession. Be it female-dominated, gender-balanced, or male-dominated occupations. From elementary and middle school educators to computer programmers, women on average are paid less than men.

              Some pay gap debunkers cling to a 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Labor that concluded in part that the wage gap may be almost entirely the result of “individual choices being made by both male and female workers.” Translation: women choose professions that pay lower wages. Rubbish.

NFL ref Sarah Thomas
              The report fails to take into account the historic and catastrophic social dynamics that until the 1970s legally, culturally and socially curtailed women from entry into certain male-dominated jobs. What’s worse is the marginalization, harassment and isolation forced on them. It happens to this day in some vocations. Video game programming comes to mind. So does church pastoring.

              Detractors also claim the unequal pay for equal work assertion is statistically flawed – that it does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure, or hours worked per week. They say when all these factors are taken into consideration, the average wage gap narrows. Fair enough; it’s changing.

              But a disparity remains.

              Starting this fall, Sarah Thomas will be wearing a ball cap bearing a National Football League (NFL) logo. This month the league hired her as one of nine new referees for the upcoming season. This makes Thomas the first full-time female official in its 95-year history.

Unequal pay? 15-yard penalty and loss of down
              What does hiring an NFL ref that’s a woman have to do with the gender pay gap issue? Plenty. It speaks to the biases, conscious and unconscious, that women in the workplace have suffered and continue to endure.

              There’s a reason it took so long for a woman to score an NFL striped shirt. It has little to do with game knowledge or the physical conditioning required to scamper up and down the field. Instead it involved antiquated notions about gender roles and men’s power and privilege to exclude.

              Somebody throw a social justice flag: inhuman procedure.
Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Monday, April 13, 2015

Social Justice is Transforming America

President Obama & Co. on 21st Century Selma March
When it comes social justice issues, something’s afoot, in our community and around the country. It’s been going on several years now and is picking up steam. And the results are transformative.

More and more people are becoming informed, taking stands and speaking out on topics of which they may have been aware. Previously, most remained on the sidelines. These days they’re coming off the bench and turning out to be real impact players. The beauty of it all is that it’s happening across multiple dimensions.

The latest centers on a piece of legislation, a religious freedom “restoration” bill Indiana governor Mike Pence recently signed into law.

Supporters hail the law as providing a much-needed check against government forcing those who have strong faiths to violate their principles. Opponents fear it will be used as a license to discriminate, because it might encourage business owners to cite their religious beliefs if they wish to refuse service to someone.

As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Yet in the wake of this law, the entire country has turned its collective eye on Indiana. And with good reason.

The initial language of the law was framed in a way that opponents insist opens the door to the immoral (if not illegal) discrimination against the LGBTQ community and possibly other historically targeted groups.

Gay Pride Flag
Back story: the Indiana legislature is still licking its wounds after a federal judge struck down Indiana's ban on same-sex marriages last summer. Some say this new law is a back door approach to get around the court decision, a claim denied by Hoosier lawmakers.

Though Governor Pence says the new Indiana law is rooted in a 1993 federal mandate, it marked a “significant expansion” over what was passed in ’93. That’s because the law not only applies to government entities, but also includes private business transactions.

The difference was different enough to garner nationwide attention. Response was swift. On the political front, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo banned all non-essential, state-funded travel to Indiana. Vermont and Connecticut took similar measures.

Entities that do business in Indiana, like the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), voiced concern over the effect of the law. So did numerous corporations. Among them, American Airlines, Apple, Levi Strauss, Microsoft, Orbitz, Starwood Hotels, Symantec, Wal-Mart and Wells Fargo.

The fact that big business is paying attention is important. That’s because this issue has turned what many pundits, critics and supporters tended to consider a social issue transformed into one of business.

It’s a real game changer. Many businesses, large and small, worry that a climate of intolerance makes it harder to recruit talent, retain customers and attract tourists.

The topic is so charged that Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson reversed course and stated he won't sign his state’s similar religious freedom restoration act into law. At least in its current form.

This pattern of dissatisfaction with social injustice has its conceptual roots in the 2010 Arab Spring. You know, the revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests in the Arab world that began with the Tunisian Revolution, and swept through countries in and around the Arab League. Among many, the Arab Spring was described as a wave of popular uprisings against oppressive policies and rule.

That same year in the United States, the Internet-based It Gets Better nonprofit was founded. This movement was of a different nature, though as with the Arab Spring, injustice was at its center. It Gets Better was in response to suicides by teenagers who were bullied because they were gay or suspected of being gay.

Yes. They really do.
Then came Occupy Wall Street, the rich/poor inequities protest movement that started in 2011. Ground zero was Zuccotti Park, in the financial district of New York City. The crusade continues to this day, receiving global attention. It has spawned other Occupy movements directed at social and economic inequality worldwide.

In 2013, Black Lives Matter came into being. It began with the creation of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter after George Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. It gained momentum in the months following the police-related shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, John Crawford III near Dayton, Ohio, and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City.

Closer to home, in neighboring Marshall, another justice movement is underway. Youth at Marshall High School are rallying around its LGBTQ students (much to the chagrin of some parents) to let them know their school is a safe and accepting place. About 30 students stood in solidarity with the transgender community during a recent rally.

None of these movements are “agenda-driven” as some incite. Rather, they are efforts that raise awareness of social injustice that affects various groups of people (poor, POC, LGBT) who traditionally have little or no voice, and whose issues have historically been downplayed or outright ignored by mainstream America.

That’s why social justice work must maintain an intersectional footing. Because at the end of the day, the goal of each group is the same: achieve equity for all people – regardless of how different they may seem.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at